If the past long weeks into months of modified lockdown have taught us anything, it’s that both life and business are changing on a daily basis. COVID-19 has disrupted everything from supply chains to delivery systems. To remain relevant and viable, savvy business owners are examining different business models and approaches. And that’s where an approach inspired by the direct to consumer (D2C) model might be the next big wave in marketing overall.
Where a majority of businesses once relied on a middleman to reach their desired demographic, there’s now a huge gap where the distributor or retailers once were. By understanding the D2C approach, some marketers might find inspiration on how to adapt their existing processes and find a way to directly reach their desired customer or end-user.
Think it’s just small businesses wondering if a direct to consumer approach is the right approach moving forward? The Wall Street Journal’s CMO newsletter written by Nat Ives reported that PepsiCo increased sales in the first quarter as people stocked up on snacks to shelter at home. So much so that the company launched direct to consumer sites, including PantryShop.com, designed to feed the need for more immediate nosh delivery of Cheetos, Doritos, breakfast cereal and more. CMO reported that products can also be bought bundled in themes like “Rise & Shine” and “Workout & Recovery.”
But let’s take a step back and discuss what direct to consumer marketing is and why we should care.
What is D2C marketing and why does it work?
In a nutshell, D2C marketing is a way for brands to directly communicate and sell to the end-user. “It builds a better, stronger relationship with them as a consumer,” said Brian Honigman, a marketing consultant and NYU Adjunct Professor. The reason that D2C works is that the brands generally have a “better, stronger relationship with them as a consumer.”
More than that, Honigman said that with the direct to consumer approach, the people behind the brand likely created their product “out of a need in the market that is not being filled. Everyone has a stronger knowledge of the product, the mission, the purpose behind creating it. They believe in it. They control every aspect of the corporation.”
3 reasons direct to consumer marketing could work for your brand:
1. Your content and connection already appeal to your desired consumer.
If your brand is already successfully creating engaging content that allows your desired consumer to shift comfortably between your website and social platforms and the buying platform, you’re already halfway there. It’s also important to realize that by shifting your marketing directly to the consumer you’re not being disloyal to the retailers and distributors. You’re simply finding another way to allow consumers to enjoy your product, even if it’s through catchy content until regular deliveries start up again.
2. You’re supplying something they want, but might not be able to access.
What if you’re a service company reliant exclusively on in-person interaction? Instead of giving up on your business entirely, try to find a way to continue to provide your service, albeit in a highly modified fashion.
With about a dozen locations around the country, SUGARED + BRONZED was a service-based company offering very specific spa treatments in the form of sugaring and spray tanning services. The company has completely pivoted to e-commerce and D2C based sales through their website. While there are drugstore formulations at home, for loyal customers having products from a company they already know and trust adds a layer of both pampering and comfort to the process.
3. You thrive on competition.
A few years back, the market was flooded with at-home meal preparation delivery systems. While some might have worried that the market was saturated, others realized that it only meant that the pioneering brands had paved the way for their own companies.
If your idea or product isn’t original, you need to find a way to package it to find its audience. For Blue Apron, that means a blog that discusses everything from current events to holidays and food trends. The underlying theme might be that you’re still a worthy foodie, even if someone else does the majority of the prep work. For Freshly, that means extremely tight marketing that highlights the brand’s commitment in everything from the brand name to idea of nutritious, healthy, chef-made food.
Where do you begin?
First of all, don’t panic. A direct to consumer approach doesn’t work for every brand. If you’re weighing your options and don’t think it’s a good fit, it probably isn’t. And just because other brands seem to be shifting at the speed of light, doesn’t mean that you and your brand should.
“Take a step back and pause,” advises Honigman. In fact, “give yourself a bit of time. Communicate with customers so they know you’re there,” but don’t be in a great big rush to change everything. Honigman suggests that you take a look at how you’re making money. “Is it retail partners? Is there a way you can translate those services and products into something you can make money with online?” And don’t feel rushed to answer those questions either. Take a day or a week if you need it. And don’t worry if your first effort is more meh than magnificent.
“Right now, everyone is a little more forgiving in terms of production quality,” Honigman said. And while “some marketers might get a little scared and think I don’t have a professional studio or I haven’t done a professional gig before,” Honigman thinks there’s a lot more forgiveness in the relationships between consumers and companies than ever before. And before you start to feel overwhelmed, he said that “you should take a step back and adapt what you’re not able to do right now during the pandemic to what you can do digitally and it makes sense for the long term.”
The old adage about this not being a sprint but a race still holds true. Though things feel more urgent right now, you have to protect the long-term health of your company in addition to figuring out what comes next.
Need a bit of inspiration from brands who have figured it all out?
3 lessons for marketers from successful direct to consumer marketing brands:
1. Stick with what works.
When beloved men’s brand Bonobos was acquired by Walmart, loyal fans worried the brand would lose some of its authenticity and they weren’t shy about it. Longtime consumers expressed their fears via social media and the company founders listened. As reported in an article on MarketingDive in 2018, at a brand summit panel, Bonobos CEO Micky Onvural shared some of the outcry on Twitter to news of the sale. But his ultimate takeaway was the fact that it “was also this opportunity to really reaffirm what we stood for in light of this changing ecosystem.”
Customers who already loved Bonobos were willing to give it a chance even under its new umbrella, as long as they were reassured the brand, product and ethos would remain the same.
2. Give them what they already love.
When brothers David, Adam, and Noah Belanich of Joyride Coffee realized their in-office coffee delivery business wasn’t sustainable for the coronavirus pandemic, they shifted from B2B to D2C in just two weeks. Recognizing that their loyal customers wanted great coffee even when working from home, the Belanich brothers mobilized their existing staff. They also packed and shipped orders to help support their local roasters.
Joyride already had both a loyal customer base and local roasters they relied on. What they did was find a way to pivot their business plan to better support both while keeping their business afloat.
3. Give them what they already need — then tell them about it.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the “modern basics” sold by Everlane came from J. Crew or Gap. And the pricing isn’t that far off either. But in 2017, Everlane founder Michael Preysman told the New Yorker that he believed marketing had a negative connotation. In his opinion though, “What a really great company does is figure out, what are the customer’s needs? And then giving it to them. And then telling it to them.”
Everlane didn’t reinvent fashion or even fashion basics. But what they did well was pare down the process, so their customer base felt understood and well taken care of without having to spend time wading through the competition’s offerings.
Did we mention the part about creative content, amazing advertising, and stellar social media?
If you want to appeal to people, you have to reach them where they live. And for most of us, that means online and on social media, since we’re not in our usual hangouts. Why do more of us talk about the commercials during the Super Bowl than the Super Bowl itself? Because they’re packed with humor, creativity and fun. We don’t mind being sold to as long as it respects who we are.
3 D2C marketing case studies to inspire you:
1. Adapt. Then keep adapting.
Cellar Angels had a brick and mortar wine retail store in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago until they went completely online with their virtual business 10 years ago. “We market directly to the consumer by creating video content that is seen nationally,” said Martin Cody, CEO, president, and co-founder.
“We use social media platforms to share highly produced video content. We also rely on customer referrals and Cellar Angel’s blogs that are posted and shared through all social media channels.”
The brand also sends social media toolkits directly to wineries and charity partners so they can share content and promotions through their channels. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, Cellar Angels shifted their marketing to be more inviting.
As Cody explained:
“We now conduct a SIP (Shelter In Place) virtual wine tasting every Friday night where we interview a different winemaker each week. Each virtual attendee can purchase a wine tasting kit so they can sip their wine along with the winemaker live during these SIP events — to recreate a feeling (as close as possible) of being with the winemaker in Napa.”
They also excel at customer service. Cody said, “We track each shipment and communicate directly with our customers through text and email.” They’re also working to redirect wine shipments from offices to homes.
2. Treat everyone like an influencer.
Unlike longtime established beauty brands, cosmetics brand Glossier doesn’t simply chase the influencer of the moment but instead turns existing brand evangelists into brand icons. Founded in 2014 by former Vogue stagger Emily Weiss, Glossier doesn’t just sell a product, it sells the enthusiasm of people who love the product.
Don’t believe me? Among other things, I develop/brand and market cosmetics, so I really know what goes into creating a product and getting it to market. And guess what? I still find myself daydreaming about Glossier’s cult product Boy Brow, even though I’m sure it’s nothing more than a fine product with a fantastic hype machine behind it. What Glossier does better than most is combine the panache of their blanket marketing, with fantastic content outreach on their Into The Gloss newsletter, along with the mass adulation ever-present on social media.
3. Meet their moments.
Every fall, we start to see the hard holiday sell and after a while, it all feels a bit draining. “Seasonality is a huge concern from a timing standpoint,” said Herb Jones, chief marketing officer of photo decor brand Fracture.
As a highly giftable D2C brand, Jones explained that “we are constantly focused on net new eyes and not just during peak buying seasons.” For Jones, that means the focus is on “connecting our brand and our products to key buying moments in our advertising. As a photo decor company, that means publishing content that inspires people to take better photos during those special life moments — what we refer to as ‘The Moments that Matter.’ Vacations, weddings, fun family moments, births, special moments with pets, etc. — we want to connect our brand to those moments so that brand recognition comes at a time when the person would possibly need our products.”
What this could mean for your own brand is that instead of trying so hard right now to fit in and evolve, you could instead plot a longer-term strategy that simultaneously allows your brand to evolve to a D2C mindset while preparing to highlight the best season for your brand.
And until you’ve found your new and improved niche, Honigman says to always “keep the connection with the customer. Keep the customer in mind foremost,” and realize that’s what most businesses should have been doing all along.
“Sure, businesses need to keep the need for profit in mind, but that’s where a lot of gaps existed in the past. Not keeping the customer in mind over everything else.”